|Freddy Versus Jason, Alien Versus Predator, Angel versus Spike, Kenneth Starr versus Bill Clinton... in the last decade horror titans have clashed in a way not seen since Frankenstein met the Wolfman back when Moses was a Pup (or 1943 by traditional reckoning)! In that the Kingukongu tai Gojira trend is back in full force, it seems that it was only a matter of time before someone pitted Vampires and Werewolves against each other in a vicious b-movie war. Silly me, they did it in an A-movie, with Kate Beckinsale in the lead for goodness sake. Along the way to the screen director Len Wiseman along with fellow "story" writers Danny McBride and Kevin Grevioux picked up not only the concepts behind the clashing of the biggest monsters in movies, but also borrowed from a set of other series such as The Matrix, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Aliens, and Blade (another Buffy-borrower) while hanging on to its core as a star-crossed lovers affair reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet (albeit with less blood and gore than Romeo and Juliet). While it's true that you've seen most of these elements before, Underworld manages to handle the whole shebang pretty well and you get the feeling that you're watching something new (although your subconscious finds the whole thing sort of predictable).
Underworld is the dark tale of the final(?) chapter in the war between Vampires and Werewolves (aka Lycans... short for Lycanthropes). For a thousand years they've clashed right under the noses of humanity and have constantly one upped each other with the latest technologies to ultimately win the war. There are no immortals trapped in the past living in castles or caves here. Instead we see machine guns, laptop computers and medical facilities dedicated to the unique physiologies of the undead. Central in the plot for the underworlders to annihilate each other is Selene (Beskinsale), a vampire with a conscience. Her Romeo in this case is a human tied to the Lycans (though not by choice) named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). Naturally, just like in the Bard's tale neither the Werewolves nor the Vampires can accept this and they become targets by both sides (and for vastly different reasons).
What follows is a series of attacks back and forth with our star crossed lovers as the rope in a decayed tug of war. The duplicitous change sides more often than an independent voter and the "good guys" remain hopelessly trapped in the middle hoping for someone to throw them a bone. in that Corvin has a special part to play for both sides, nary a bone is offered, nor procured.
Sure you've heard a lot of this before, and this could simply be a collage of various franchises you could do without rehashing, however McBride's script throws in a lot of truly unique angles for you to chew on and smile. The concept of technologically competitive Vampires developing along side gene-splicing medically experienced lycanthropes is pretty unique, as is the gothic arcana mixed with modern (but not post-modern) computer systems. A sleeping vampire slowly brought from mummy-form to full power and virility by a series of controlled plasma IVs is quite a sight to see. Also, the weaponry here is far from derivative. There are no stakes through the heart or garlic to fight the vampires, but ultraviolet irradiated liquid bullet capsules kill the night walkers just dandy, thank you! Similarly, silver bullets work well until liquid silver nitrate is packed into a breaking bullet-case to kill the werewolves.
Rather than remain trapped by genre the writers allow for their own play-around with the mythology. These vampires have reflections, and the werewolves are only somewhat bound by the full moon. Also these lycans aren't covered in fur. I've often wondered where the fur goes when a wolf morphs back into a human... shouldn't we see a big pile of fur surrounding the awakened person? The wolves also retain their human memories and missions, which is a fun methodology too. Such new takes on an overall secondary storyline make a war that ultimately boils down to petty racism pretty fun to watch.
Beckinsale is pretty darned good. She's been a gem in many of the films she's appeared in (both good and bad), and she does a fine job here. She's a beautiful woman, and she wears her skin-tight Birds of Prey reminiscent leather very well, but there's nothing sleazy about her look. Rather she's a tough and pretty heroine with a lot of class. She pulls off some interesting action shots (all enhanced by at least wires), and her acting is pretty great. Director Wiseman films the whole thing in a blue-hued darkness which adds a coolness and a richness at the same time. It gets a little old after about an hour, seeing everyone with bluish skin, but the mood is conveyed perfectly. Likewise the special effects are the best ever for the transformation from Human into Wolf. These wolves more resemble Streiber's Wolfen than Michael Landon in makeup! There is a lot of blood and scary violence thrown around, so don't bring the kiddies unless they've been weaned on Itchy and Scratchy!
Is Underworld perfect? Not at all. There are flaws here that can't be ignored. Aside from it's multi-parent lineage, this film also delves into the melodramatic more often than it needs to. Shane Brolly who plays Kraven isn't the world's greatest actor when calm, but when over-excited he's practically goofy. Likewise Bill Nighy's Viktor shows promise as a sinister age-old vampire until he proves himself an over-actor toward the end. Just the opposite, Beckinsale's real-life beau Michael Sheen seems way too over the top as Lycan leader Lucian, but surprisingly gains pathos and charisma toward the end. The question of where the eff-you-see-kay all this is taking place never left my thoughts. The majority of both races speak with an English Accent, while Dr. Corvin and his MD colleagues (by all appearances, locals) sound like Americans, and then there are the police who drive cars with Czech and Hungarian license plates. What is this, Elseworlds?
Not really a complaint, but the Vampires don't do a whole lot that's truly vampiric. For example, they've amassed a great deal of wealth over the years and thus have synthesized blood plasma for their sustenance. The "Death Dealers" (Vampire army) are much more likely to use a bullet than a fang in spite of the fact that this would probably work pretty well too. They prove themselves to be vampires in other ways though, and it's rather a refreshing take on the whole thing. All in all it's an interesting modern take on the classics of horror amounting to Matrix versus Aliens against a Romeo and Juliet backdrop with just a dash of Buffy and Blade to ice the cake.
Three and one half stars for Underwear... oh, I mean, Underworld. I have to give them credit for making a series of been there/ done thats more original than they ever had any reason to be. The acting is pretty good (aside from the occasional Snidely K. Whiplash moment) and the special effects are top notch. Essentially this will go down as a pretty decent action/ horror film but will ever bear the comparison to The Matrix (as will countless others including eXistenZ and X-Men). Although it might not be the most original thing ever, it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch and it's stylistic and effective. Keep your eye out for the sequel that this one sets up. For those of you who have married yourself to only one aspect of the constantly changing mythos of the undead, let me remind you, man can't live on Joss alone. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm playing the role of "Jek Porkins (red six)" in my community theatre production of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope... you laugh, but Mark Hamill is playing Luke again.